Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A truce, a birthday and english soup

Okay Texas- I'm calling a truce. Since we'll be living in Texas for God know how long, I need to make peace with the state. I guess it's not that bad- out of the month and a half we've been here we've had sunshine every day. And yes, its hot, but its not too humid, so it feels good.

Besides the weather, Texas has a lot to offer. It is the biggest state in the union, so there's so much to do and see. We've been to Dallas a few times, and are looking forward to trips all around the state. So I guess Texas and I can be friends. Whew- our little feud was getting tiring.

Now that that's out of the way- I had a recipe for you ( or y'all as the Texans would say).
Yesterday was Gian Luca's birthday and to celebrate, I made his favorite dessert Zuppa Inglese.

Zuppa Inglese translates to "English Soup" and the only reason I can think of for the name is that this dessert is like an English Triffle and is sometimes served in a bowl.

Originally created to use the scraps from a cake, Zuppa Inglese is layers of cake, cream, chocolate, coffee and Alchermes, a spicy, sweet liquor from Italy.

It's almost impossible to find Alchermes here in America. I actually just googled it and no one sells it. It's not even imported and there are no recipes to make a bath-tub version either.

Last year, for Gian Luca's birthday I drove to all the best wine shops in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, asking everyone who I talked to about it. No one had ever heard of it, and back then, I didn't know what it tasted like, so my only description of the liquor was that it was bright red. Upon hearing this, people in the first two stores led me to the Campari, which is bitter and wonderful but nothing at all like Alchermes. I gave up in frustration and made Tiramisu instead.
This June, when we went to Italy, Gian Luca's mom bought us a bottle to take home. If you're interested in getting a bottle you apparently have to do the same. Or ask a friend who's going to Italy.
If no one you know is going to Italy any time soon, you can still make the Zuppa Inglese because the rest of the ingredients are delicious, even without the Alchermes. And if you want the beautiful splash of red color- just fake it and use grenadine.

Zuppa Inglese can be made with either Savoiardi ( Dried Lady Fingers) or Pan di Spagnia ( yes, translated that means "bread from Spain"- what an international dessert!). It was impossible for me to find the Savoiardi here in Texas, so I opted for the Pan di Spagnia, which I can easily make at home.

Basically Pan di Spagnia is Italy's version of Angel Food Cake, though you don't have to bake it in a tube pan or hang it upside down on a bottle ( I never understood the need for that!). My mom's version of Pan di Spagnia ( see recipe below) is make in a 9 inch spring form pan, which makes it easy to remove.

But even if you break the cake, or, if like me, you don't cook it long enough and the center turns out a bit raw, it's not big deal. Zuppa Inglese is made by layering pieces of cake with cream, so feel free to cut, tear, or rip off big hunks of your freshly baked Pan di Spagnia.

The cream in Zuppa Inglese is Crema Pasticchiera- Italian Pastry cream, which can also be used in a variety of desserts like Italian Rum Cake, or cream puffs. Its lemony and not too sweet, perfect for a Zuppa Inglese.

Besides the cake and the cream, all you need is a little chocolate powder or chocolate chips and a nice strong double shot of espresso.

My husband was on to something with this one. Who wouldn't love a dessert that combines Liquor, Cream, Chocolate and Espresso?
Happy Birthday Gian Luca!

Zuppa Inglese:
Zuppa Inglese can be made as one large Trifle, or in individual glasses, as I did. This recipe makes enough for six people and can be kept in the fridge for one day.

Pan di Spagnia
5 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon Baking powder

1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9 inch spring form pan with wax paper. Set aside
2) In a large bowl, beat egg yolks with sugar until soft yellow ( about two minutes)
3) In a different bowl, beat egg whites until they form stiff peaks.
4) Sift together flour and baking soda.
5) Alternate folding the egg whites into the yolks, adding a small bit of flour after each incorporation. Repeat until all the egg whites and flour have been added.
6) pour into prepared pan and tap the pan against the counter a few times to settle any air bubbles.
7) bake for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

8) For the Crema Pasticchiera recipe click here

9) Once you've made your cake and cream, and the cream has chilled for at least an hour, take half of the cream and place it in a separate bowl. Set the rest aside.
10) depending on whether you like dark or semi-sweet chocolate, you can either add coco-powder to the cream, stirring until incorporated, or you can melt 1/4 cup of chocolate chips and stir that into the cream. I actually did a mixture of both.
11) Brew a double shot of espresso and add a shot of hot water to weaken it a bit.
12) Cut the cake into cubes and begin layering you Zuppa Inglese like so: Cake, coffee poured directly on top, a drop of Alchermes ( or grendine), plain crema, and chocolate crema. Repeat as necessary.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

When it rains...

Plum Skillet Cake Recipe

Whoever invented the saying, " when it rains, it pours," must have lived in our apartment in Texas. If you've been reading this blog, you know that the Lone Star state and I don't really get along too well, and my last week proved that things were not getting any better.

It all started last Thursday when I left the apartment for a mere 10 minutes to go the laundry room and throw a load of wash in the machine. I returned to find a small lake in the middle of my apartment floor. I thought we had just left the state of 10,000 lakes, but apparently, I was wrong. Though I couldn't locate the source of the leak, I cleaned up the mess and called maintenance. Little did I know this would be one of the 17 phone calls I'd make over the next six days, or that the bucket full of water that I wrung out of rags would be the first of many that we'd have to deal with.

Yes, that's right, our apartment flooded for six days before management finally called a plumber.

At a certain point during day two of the floods, I needed to bake a cake to bring to a friend's house for dinner. Since I couldn't exactly leave the apartment, lest a plumber finally show up only to be locked out of the place, I had to make do with what I had in the kitchen. I found some flour, sugar, butter and nectarines. Since we still don't have internet in our place (don't even ask) searching for a recipe on google was out.

Naturally I turned to Martha, and found a delicious looking recipe for a skillet cake in the August issue of Martha Stewart Living. I don't have a skillet but the recipe said I could use an 8-inch cake pan instead.

Since I was using a cake pan, I forgot that this cake is called a Skillet Cake for a reason, and as I prepped the ingredients, whipped the butter and sugar, and sliced super thin slices of nectarines, I never once pondered the name. I had never made or eaten a skillet cake, so I was blindly unaware that it is to be served in the skillet. It makes sense, I know, but Martha also forgot to mention it in her recipe ( tisk tisk). So when the beautiful plump cake had completely cooled I thought it appropriate to try to flip it out of its pan. After all, I certainly didn't want to bring a luscious cake to someone's house in a cake pan. That would be like dressing a Van Gough painting in an Ikea frame.

I slipped a plate over the cake and inverted it. Nothing happened. I tapped the bottom of the pan one, twice, three times. No luck. The cake wasn't budging. I should have stopped there. But no, I was determined, full of frustration from my floor and the phone calls which had been ignored, and the way that management was treating us. So I flipped the cake upside down on a plate and whacked it, causing the center to fall out in big crumbs.

Then I understood why it is called a Skillet Cake. You're not supposed to take it out, instead, you're supposed to serve it right in there. I was so mad at myself that I wanted to scream or cry or at least, call Gian Luca and have him tell me it was no big deal.

Then the floor started flooding again. And as tears rolled down my face, I realized there was nothing I could do so I took a piece of the cake in my hands and ate it. At least it tasted good.

Plum Skillet Cake
Photo and Recipe Adapted from Martha Stewart Living

Serves 4

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for skillet
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for skillet
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • Coarse salt
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk
  • 2 ripe medium plums, thinly sliced


  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter an 8-inch ovenproof skillet (preferably cast-iron); dust with flour, tapping out excess. Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Beat butter and 3/4 cup sugar with a mixer on medium speed until pale and fluffy. Beat in egg. Add flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with buttermilk.
  2. Pour batter into prepared skillet, and smooth top with an offset spatula. Fan plums on top, and sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. Bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool slightly.